UPDATE 3-Syrian opposition begins talks to broaden, unify ranks

Sun Nov 4, 2012 2:41pm EST

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* Five days of talks in Qatar try to meld disparate groups

* Major goal is to align opposition abroad with rebels in Syria

* Some analysts are sceptical of major results

By Rania El Gamal and Regan Doherty

DOHA, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Syria's splintered opposition factions began talks in Qatar on Sunday on forging a common front for their war against the army of President Bashar al-Assad, but analysts were sceptical that the meeting would bring immediate results.

It was the first concerted attempt to meld opposition groups based abroad and align them with rebels fighting in Syria, to help end a 19-month-old conflict that has killed more than 32,000 people and devastated swathes of the major Arab country. The war threatens to widen into a regional sectarian conflagration.

Tensions between Islamists and secularists as well as between those inside Syria and opposition figures based abroad have thwarted prior attempts to forge a united opposition and analysts sounded a note of caution about the five-day talks.

One Qatar-based security analyst, who asked not to be named, said: "No one was expecting anything to be delivered despite the heavy Qatari hand on this. The Syrian National Council is just too divided. We are likely only looking at a small movement forward."

Sunni Qatar along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey are backing the mainly Sunni rebels, while Shi'ite Iran supports Assad.

The talks in Doha are intended to win greater international support for the rebels and crucial arms supplies. One aim is to broaden the SNC, the largest of the overseas-based opposition groups, from some 300 members to 400.

Opposition leaders hoped this would pave the way to a follow-up meeting in Doha on Thursday bringing in other opposition factions with the goal of creating an anti-Assad coalition and ending months of political and personal infighting.

"The main aim is to expand the council to include more of the social and political components. There will be new forces in the SNC," Abdulbaset Sieda, current leader of the Syrian National Council, told reporters in Doha ahead of the meeting.

He said the meetings will also elect a new executive committee and leader for the SNC, criticised in the past over perceptions of domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The United States called last week for an overhaul of the opposition's leadership, saying it was time to move beyond the SNC and bring in those "in the front lines fighting and dying".

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the meeting in Qatar would be an opportunity to establish a credible opposition.

Internal feuding, a lack of cooperation between leaders abroad and fighters in Syria and the rising clout of autonomous Muslim militants in rebel ranks have deterred Western powers keen to see Assad gone from offering more than moral support.

Influential opposition figure Riad Seif has proposed a structure melding the rebel Free Syrian Army, regional military councils and other insurgent units alongside local civilian bodies and prominent opposition figures.

On Sunday, Seif said the initiative has won the backing of "12 key countries" but would not specify which ones. He said if a decision on the new leadership was made on Thursday, "maybe 100 countries will recognise this new leadership as the legitimate and only representative of the Syrians."

Those countries would convene a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Morocco to support the new elected group, he said.

IMPROVING PITCH FOR ARMS

Western, Turkish and Arab recognition of the new opposition structure, Seif said in an interview with Reuters last week, will help channel anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels and "decide the battle".

Western diplomats based in the Middle East said Washington was supporting an initiative by Seif, which could effectively lessen the sway of the SNC. But SNC leaders criticised what they saw as foreign meddling in the opposition's affairs.

"Syrians are the ones who choose their leadership... There were some (foreign) powers who tried to interfere but I think they backed down," Sieda said.

Opposition sources said the success of the proposal would depend partly on the degree to which he could resist pressure from the SNC to pack the new 50-member assembly proposed by Seif with its members.

Senior SNC member Burhan Ghalioun said the assembly proposed by Seif should complement the SNC structure but not replace it.

"We will succeed if we make (the initiative) an operation room for the opposition," he said, adding that the SNC has 15 seats in the assembly proposed by Seif, and wants to increase that to around 22 seats.

SNC leaders said Seif's proposal would suffer if it were perceived as nothing more than a replacement for the SNC.

"We witnessed many trials to bypass the SNC but they all failed and we think that any (new) attempt to bypass the SNC will also fail," veteran opposition figure George Sabra told Reuters.

"There is a fear among some that it (the initiative) would be a substitute for the council... and this could create new disagreements between the Syrians that we don't need."

Others did not expect a final agreement on Thursday.

"We did not say we are rejecting it and we did not accept it. We are talking," Sieda said.

"We welcome a consultative meeting for the powers on the ground and the political factions in the Syrian opposition."

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